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Move your Safety Performance: A view from transportation with Gardner Tabon

Move your Safety Performance: A view from transportation with Gardner Tabon



Safety needs to be a constant consideration in every job, especially in the transportation industry. This week’s guest is Gardner Tabon, EVP and Chief Safety Officer for Capital Metro. He shares valuable insights on incorporating safety into the day-to-day of all workers – not just those working in the safety team. Take a listen to learn how to be a safety “solutionist” and engage, inform and educate your employees in all things safety.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams; their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops the Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Gardner Tabon, who’s spent 20 years serving in the safety space to two thirds really in the safety space, some in the operations space, deep understanding of transportation that currently works as vice president, safety risk management and accessible services for a capital metro in Austin, Texas. Gardner, welcome to the show.

Eric, thank you so very much for having me on. I really do appreciate this opportunity. It’s rare that I get to expound on issues related to safety on a podcast. So, thank you very much for having me on.

Well, it’s great. Great to have you on the show. I’d love if you could share a little bit about your story and particularly your passion for safety, how you got to where you are today.

Right. So many years ago, my family had introduced me to the industry of railroading. They were serving in various capacities, you know, car inspectors and such. And so, it piqued my interest, but not so much to join right away. I was in another career in public utilities, as a matter of fact, when I kind of ran aground, if you will, in that career, I just really didn’t do very well in it.

And I went to my relatives and they suggested that, hey, maybe you might want to join us at Amtrak. Why don’t you see what’s going on there? And so, I did and immediately became interested in that many different offerings they had. And so, I joined the operations team would be a part of it for a bit before moving on to moving my career on to another railroad that was very nearby in New York City and began to grow in it and saw how immediately that without safety at its core and essence, there is no railroad and there’s no transportation.

We have to have a safe way to travel, to transport our customers. It’s people moving people. And that’s what really piqued my interest. And how do we do it? How do we do it in a safe way? So, I was introduced to all these regulations. So, I was a fairly young person. I was in my early 20s and I’m only twenty-nine now. And I saw how much the regulations, best practices and standards that had been incorporated into the day-to-day operations really mattered.

And so, you know, operating in it day to day and having to be tested and certified and actually we call it qualified back then, but having to qualify and really know the ins and outs of the rules, not just to be able to recite them, but to contextualize them, how to apply them to our day-to-day operations and to help our colleagues along. So that way we could have infinite free days. You know, you try your very best to and just piqued my interest amazed me.

So, then I began to dig a little deeper and I’ll try to shorten this story. But I was approached by a couple of senior executives and managers. I guess they saw something in me that said this guy could actually be perhaps the next generation. And I explored it and saw that instead of staying in operations, what can I do to help operations along? What can I do to support it from a safety perspective? And that’s when the vice president of safety at Long Island Railroad.

One of many steps in my career approached me and I owe him to this day for the conversation we had over 20 years ago, he said. Gardner likely to consider joining my department. I think you’d be really good for it. And I said, you know, just give me a couple of years, more years in operations that we’ve become a little bit more immersed in it. And I promise you, if you have something available, I will apply.

And I applied. And the rest is history, as they say. I’ve not turned back. I’ve really had a blessed career, a wonderful career. And I’m hoping that along the way, others have seen my passion, my purpose, and just my true desire to assist in giving our customers, our employees, contractors and others the very safest environment to operate and to ride. So that’s kind of it in a snapshot.

That’s amazing. So, one of the things that I find very interesting about the transportation world that you come from is you’ve got so many lone workers. Safety is so critical to running a good operation, just like an airline, a railway. When there’s an accident, it’s serious. Yes. How have you helped increase engagement around safety? Because you have so many workers that come in probably to a depot or a particular location and then are gone for the whole day with very limited supervision.

So become so critical to drive engagement. Can you share some thoughts there?

Oh, absolutely. So, there are several things, several approaches that we take to ensure that complacency doesn’t set in. But it’s easy for that to be done, especially if you’re not supervised. And I’m not talking about micromanage, just general supervision throughout your day. And so, one of the things we do just very simply is make sure that at the beginning of your day, you’re given a safety toll and that you’re made aware of the potential hazards of the territory that you’ll be entering into the other ways we do it through bulletins, general orders and other sorts of documents that they would have to review and perhaps take with them throughout their day.

As a reminder and throughout the day, it’s important for dispatchers to provide messaging throughout the day and those safety messages and to find out the locations of individuals to ensure that they’re not going to be in harm’s way. So, there’s that constant contact that we strive to have with those especially lone workers, as you say.

Hmm, exactly. One of the things as well, I remember when we talked about can we talk before is you talked a little bit about the why for safety and for safety changes. Can you share a little bit about how you convey this and how you get other leaders to share their why? The Safety Guru sure. So very recently, our industries have gone through a big cultural shift and that now there are added regulations that require us to take an all-hands approach to safety, if you will, to take a more accountable approach to safety, including everyone and not just the safety department, but the safety department was looked to for the answer and looked to for resolution of many safeties related issues.

While we’re still here to be safety solution is, as I say, we are now spreading the word. We are providing system safety, teaching opportunities and learning opportunities to our colleagues so that they can understand better how to resolve better resolve their own issues and to have a much higher level of accountability when it comes to safety. And so, we’re going through a bit of a. A pivot, but it’s working out well, it’s going to be, you know, some growing pains in there, but it’s so important to really identify hazards, mitigate hazards together as a group.

You know, and I know the airline industry. Right. Has encaged safety management systems is for several years now. And we’re just catching up with it. We’re just catching up. So, I’m excited about this era that we are walking into now and don’t have to explain this to you or your audience. But it makes sure that there’s a much higher level of engagement and involvement and accountability across the organization. And in our case, the government has deemed that the CEO is the accountable executive.

So no longer do you have CEOs and those of that level to, you know, trying to be kind to plead ignorance to certain safety matters, because it’s my job as the chief safety organizer, as chief safety officer of the organization that you bring to make my counterparts, my colleagues and my CEO aware of certain safety-related issues, particularly those that are rising to the top. And so, to engage, to inform, to educate, those are my three kids that I know that I must fulfill throughout the organization, beginning with my boss, the CEO, on down to those who are cleaning our facilities.

I mean, I have to make sure that everyone is aware and that they are aware of their role and safety and so continue educational opportunities there. And we’re looking at our marketing department is it is helping us with the messaging and it’s just really going well. It’s you know, it’s constant. You never stop and it’s going well.

That’s excellent.

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There’re now so much more data insights that are available as well to get some view of safety, driving, ownership and awareness in terms of. Tools that exist within busses, within trains, can you share a little bit more about how that’s driving this sense of increased ownership and how do you balance the Big Brother feel of it with the additional insights that can help drive?

Sure. So, we have data sources throughout the organization ranging from our signal system to the internals on our trains, the data that’s within our trains and even our video cameras. So, we utilize every data point, if possible, to not just inform our stakeholders of what’s going wrong, but the things that are going right. And I think that is so right because you don’t want to use your occasions to communicate with your stakeholders. Just the bad news.

Let’s talk about and I informed my staff of the same guys. When you are performing your audits, your observations and you’re having your discussions, let them know what it is they are doing right as well. That way, when that way, when we bring them news that that that that informs them, they’re falling short in a certain area, it’s more a much more balanced approach. And so that has allowed for more open doors and conversations around safety that otherwise may not have occurred.

Because, you know, the last thing you want to do is come to work and give people everything.

I know you don’t like that because we all have shortcomings somewhere and but we don’t want it to be, oh, The Safety Guru hears it. So, when we do recognize shortcomings, I advise my staff to be safety solutions. And not just you know, it’s seen as safety police. Let’s provide some solutions or suggestions of solutions and that that way we will see it doors open rather than just closed because, again, they don’t want to hear the bad news.

And I’m just kind of bringing the issues, dropping in on their desks and saying, fix this. We’ll be back in twenty days. Now it’s here’s what we’ve seen. How can we help you to resolve this issue? Is there anything we can do? Is there some technology we can introduce? Is there can we go out and into joint observations together and engage employees together and, you know, be more visible together? So, we want to take a unified approach.

And again, it’s not just the bad news. It’s telling our stakeholders and even our employees and contractors the things that they’re doing well. And that’s probably one of the best predictors of somebody doing the right safe choice the next time is that they’re also recognized for when they did the right thing.

Absolutely. Absolutely. And so, we’re along those lines. We’re working on improving our recognition profile. We call it Safety Champions program. And so, the director that reports to me and other members of our staff, even our intern, they’re revamping the program now to expand it to just overall improvements. You know, you have to review your programs annually. We found a number of areas where we can improve. And so, I have the team taking a look at that and how we can recognize our employees and our contractors that are here for the things that they’re doing well.

And hopefully, that will encourage others to do their jobs even better than they’re doing today. And how what are some of the areas you’re looking at? Because safety recognition is such a complicated topic. It’s so critical, yet few people do it really well. What are some of the areas that you’re really trying to drive forward in terms of your recognition programs?

So typically, you’ll see and this is what we’re looking at to an injury free workplace, an accident-free workplace. And we will also want to look at areas such as the reporting of near misses. So, we’ve not gotten a lot of traditionally with not gotten a lot of reports regarding near misses or near accidents, depending on where you’re from. And so, we want to encourage that by awarding or recognizing employees who do participate in that program. We also have an employee safety reporting system that doesn’t get a lot of participation.

And so, we want to recognize those who did not report anonymously. We want to recognize those employees who do participate in that program. They bring things to our attention. We go out, mitigate the hazard and thank them because it had not been for their report to us, things could have been a lot worse, and they could have been worse outcomes. So those are a few of the things that we’re looking at right now.

That’s excellent. Now, how was the introduction of all these technology tools initially received? Because I would think that would be pretty, pretty challenging in some workplaces, even if you’re doing a lot of positive recognition. Have you gotten over the hump where people see the value, or is it still a bit of a challenge in terms of people seeing the technology that’s new to the industry?

Yeah, no, that’s a very good question. So, one of the tools introduced because of a recommendation made by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration, a cab, the video recorder, and it is used to review and or monitor the operation. And so, your locomotive engineers would see it as an infringement on their freedom. And we have to let them know that this is also a tool that can work in your favor. Right. If we have an incident that is questionable or that another person has a totally different perspective, we can review the videos available and it can tie directly to your account of the incident.

And that has happened. And thankfully, the attitude of many now has shifted after seeing where their colleague has gotten into a very bad accident and a person nearly killed, they then say, well, we guess, yeah, it’s somewhat of an infringement, but it really worked in our favor. So, it’s a technology like that that we’ve seen initial pushback, but having some really good results in time. So, some technologies, you just got to kind of give a little time to work through.

But, you know, because especially if you have a unionized property and, you know, there’s skepticism because it’s just another hammer for management to use. And certainly, it’s something that we can use that, you know, may not work well for the employee, but it’s something that we can use that will work for the employee and for the organization. So, I hope that answers your question.

Yeah, I know it’s a little bit like the dashcam that so many people use in their cars is people choose to use it because they are realizing it can protect them as well. It can be valuable, valuable tool. So that’s great. Thank you very much for sharing some of your insights and some of the work that you’re doing and for having the passion for keeping driving safe, making our railroad safer and engaging team members to drive safety.

Yeah, it’s my pleasure. I love what I do, and I’m hoping it shows and the work I do every day. We have to protect our workers, customers and the communities that we travel to and through. Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining our show and for sharing your thoughts. Oh, thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity like what we do here.

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Gardner Tabon, Capital Metro’s Executive Vice President and Chief Safety Officer has served the industry he has come to love, globally, for over 34 years. Gardner has been with Capital Metro since July 2018, and is responsible for the research, development, implementation, and management of all corporate, occupational, commuter rail, bus, Demand Response, and construction safety, emergency management, and public safety-related programs and initiatives.

As a part of an industry-wide leadership role and demonstration of his overall commitment to safety and security excellence, he serves as the American Public Transportation Association’s Commuter Rail Safety and Security Subcommittee chair.

He is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers, National Fire Protection Association, Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, and World Safety Organization. He is certified by the World Safety Organization as a certified safety executive and holds a USDOT-required Transit Safety and Security Program or TSSP certification.